How to listen to classical music

Hush please, for I am about to discuss classical music. I will compose this in four parts. Remember to hold your applause until the end. That is the number one rule with classical music: do not clap until the whole piece is finished.


Part one opens with a live performance of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, performed by the Scholars Pro Musica and the Opus Orchestra at St Mary’s Catholic Church last Saturday evening. It was glorious, a testament to the calibre of local musicianship. The best recording in the world can’t replace the tactile sounds of a live orchestra and a chamber choir.

My sister, who came with me, found the no-clapping rule difficult. She was busting for the audience to break out of their classical straight jackets and cheer after every song.

Classical music is a bit like golf. The performers need a moment of silence before they tee off. The difference is there is no applause until the full 18 holes are completed.

Hence part one of this composition concludes in silence.


Part two is about listening. Learning how to listen is key to enjoying classical music.

There is a great scene in the 1984 film, Amadeus, where Mozart dictates part of the Requiem, a section called the Confutatis, to his rival Salieri. Amadeus is worth watching for that scene alone. Each element of the music gets unpacked and played on its own so you know what to listen for.

Without knowing what to listen for, music becomes a featureless wall of background noise. Music has become so ubiquitous that we rarely pay it the attention it deserves. When was the last time you did nothing but listen to a piece of music? Mozart didn’t write his Requiem to help us fold the washing.

We have grown addicted to the lure of the thumping beat. We pour rhythm over everything like it is tomato sauce, drowning all other flavours.

I like rhythm. And sauce. That doesn’t mean it has to dominate every meal. There are treasures to discover beneath the sauce.

We have now reached the end of part two. Hush please.


Part three is set in my living room where I have been working up a piano piece: the third movement of Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata. That final movement is dramatic, stormy and great fun to play. It is a favourite of mine that I revisit every few years. It allows me to pretend I am a concert-level virtuoso. In reality I am a bumbling fumble of enthusiastic rough edges. The intricacies of the piece always beat me.

Yet each time I sit down with Beethoven I find secret pleasures in the music. It might be a nuance that I missed the previous thousand times. It might be a moment of clarity: “Aha, now I see what you’re doing there, Beethoven.”

In paying such close attention to his music, I get to engage with a creative master. I can sense his thrill at the curveballs he is throwing into the composition. What a privilege to grapple with music at that level.


There ends part three. For part four, if I could select only one piece of classical music to listen to for the rest of my life it would probably be Im Abendrot, the fourth of Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss. Most essentially, I would choose the 1965 recording featuring Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.

Im Abendrot is only 8 minutes long, but what a sublime 8 minutes. It opens with a minute or so of swooping orchestra before the soprano glides in across the top.

That is where you really need to start paying attention. Forget that you are listening to something that sounds a bit like opera. Forget that there is no music video to occupy your media-saturated mind. Just follow the golden melody and see where it takes you.

Gorgeous, isn’t it? Thank you for listening.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 29 May 2015. Reproduced with permission.